How Toy Story and the MCU Help Explain the Modern World

Decades: 1990s - 2010s

Toy Story characters; out of focus: a boy carrying a Captain America backpack.
Photo by Chris Hardy on Unsplash

Warning: This story contains spoilers for the first Toy Story, the major MCU movies, especially Civil War and the Avengers films, as well as Spider-Man: Homecoming. If you haven’t seen these movies, proceed with caution.

In one of my more popular Medium stories, I attempt to answer the question of why there were so many, many great movies in the 1980s. It’s called Why So Many Movie Classics Hail from the 1980s. My main thesis: these movies reflect the mixed reactions about the sudden spread of consumer technology during the time. There were, among many others, PCs, game consoles, and VHS players invading homes.

Most sci-fi stories of the era, like Blade Runner or The Terminator, channel these developments into a grim picture of our technological future. 80s action films like Rambo or Die Hard reject technology, as their heroes usually fight with their bare fists against technologically advanced enemies.

But the conversation didn’t end with the 1980s. Starting in the 1990s, people grew more accustomed to the technology in their homes, embracing rather than condemning it. Our relation to all those gadgets has remained ambivalent, though, there is a certain mistrust to making ourselves all too dependent on computers and smartphones.

And again, movies mirror these changes in attitude towards technology. Two great examples are the Toy Story series and the MCU, especially the movies about the core group of Marvel heroes.

The 1990s: Toy Story

The first Toy Story directly parallels the story of modern technology: Woody is a classic cowboy toy, taking care of all the other toys in the room of his owner, Andy. Woody represents tradition, the proven way of doing things.

Then Buzz Lightyear arrives, a space toy with all kinds of flashy digital features. Buzz symbolizes technology and progress — when Toy Story came out in 1995, Windows computers made their way into homes just as Buzz does in the move. The toys in Andy’s room marvel at Buzz futuristic design, but Woody is annoyed: his way of doing things suddenly feels old.

Buzz acts like a real hero from space at first, not realizing that he is in fact a toy. Something similar happened with personal computers at the time: when entering the home, they appeared to be serious tools for work — but in many ways, PCs have toy-like qualities in their own right. They play games, of course, but tinkering around with new software or even the hardware itself can feel like playing with a toy just the same.

Woody, the veteran toy, tries his all to make Buzz understand his true nature. But it takes more than words. During a turbulent adventure the two embark on, Buzz realizes what he truly is. At the same time, Woody and Buzz become close friends. This mirrors the reality in which Toy Story was made: by the mid-1990s, people had warmed up to technology as an everyday sight, shedding much of the anxiety that surrounded PCs and the like in the 1980s. Woody represents tradition, the analogue life, Buzz the future, the digital world — in Toy Story, they become friends.

The 2000s and 2010s: The MCU

The central dynamic in Toy Story, the friendship between Woody and Buzz, bears a remarkable similarity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the MCU. Here, Captain America plays the part of Woody, embodying the classic analogue hero: brave, compassionate, skillful — human. Iron Man, on the other hand, is presented much like Buzz Lightyear: futuristic, cocky, self-reflecting. Iron Man represents the future, gadgets, technological amazement, but also: digital capitalism, data collection, bureaucracy, rules. The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008, one year after the iPhone. If Toy Story processed the advent of the PC in popular culture, Iron Man and the MCU have done so with the smartphone.

All the major MCU movies depict the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man in some way: sometimes the two get along great, sometimes they become enemies. This dynamic plays out the viewers’ anxiety about the disruptions technology has brought into our lives. We cherish the old ways, represented by Captain America, but we’re curious what showy tech entrepreneurs like Tony Stark come up with next.

The difference between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark becomes most striking in the third Captain America movie, Civil War. The US government wants to take control of the Avengers who caused a lot of destruction all over the world, effectively acting outside the law. In other words, the previously independent group of heroes will get an employer and will be embedded into a bureaucratic framework. The Avengers, as a kind of American elite police squad, would act inside lawful borders and thus be safe if something goes wrong. But at the cost of their freedom and opinion, to a certain extent.

Representing modern-day capitalism and bureaucracy, Tony Stark immediately agrees. He cites many reasons for this, some quite emotional, but still, his decision reflects his character and what he stands for on a subtextual level. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, disagrees wholeheartedly, confirming his status as a symbol for humanism and freedom.

At the end of the film, Captain American duke it out with their fists. During a tense bout with Captain America, Iron Man starts the data analysis mode in his suit, which literally embodies mankind’s fascination with technology, to find patterns in Captain America’s fighting style. However, this data collection is flawed because it only takes into account Captain America’s moves — not that Bucky might help Captain America in the fight. In the end, Iron Man is defeated, kneeling down in front of heavy concrete bars: a symbol for the thoughts that imprison him.

The Future: Toy Story Meets the MCU

So what does Iron Man’s death in Avengers: Endgame mean in this context? To me, it’s a powerful statement about what the world has become. Digital capitalism has been dominating our lives for years, there is no turning back. We have to make the best of it, relying on our gadgets while keeping our humanness with us at the same time. A bit like Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter turns down Tony Starks’ job offer, and desides instead to think for himself — while still using Tony’s advanced technology in the Spider-man suit.

Soon, we’ll see a twisting crossover of Toy Story and Marvel: Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in the MCU, will star as none other than Buzz Lightyear himself in his origin story Lightyear.

Notes

  • There are many scenes in Civil War which subtly play to the themes covered here. During the airport fight, for example, Captain America and Spider-Man have a brief encounter in which Spider-Man says, relating to Cap’s shield: “That thing does not obey the laws of physics at all.” This observation by Peter Parker, himself a science whiz, perfectly summarizes Captain America’s character: technology is based on the natural sciences, its wide adoption even in social systems leading to the bureaucratic ways in which we see the world today. Captain America represents the opposite of that idea — and it only makes sense that his main weapon, his shield, would also be working outside it.
  • And to be more meta for a second, all these movies would not at all be possible without technology. Toy Story is a completely computer-generated movie (famously, the first ever), and the Marvel movies also rely heavily on CGI. In a sense, it’s no wonder that they also deal with the theme of technology.

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